School Segregation Persists Across the States: Public Schools and Charter Schools, North and South

It is hard for me to write about school integration. As white parents, my husband and I made the choice to educate our own children in a racially integrated, majority African American public school district, and we believe the setting where they went to school was a valuable and essential part of their education. But I know that for personal reasons, many white and African American parents make a different decision, and it’s been clear to me for a long time that our decision was, quite simply, our own decision.

It is a little easier to think about racial and economic integration of schools from a public policy point of view. Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist, has been showing for years now (here and here) that our society is resegregating economically, and that that segregation is hurting the educational opportunities of students who are increasingly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Much of the educational inequality that accompanies racial and economic segregation directly results from the unequal funding associated with wealth and power. Racial and economic segregation are wound together in most places, and when local, state, and federal funding are combined, our society spends far more on the education of our nation’s highest-income children. The money buys smaller classes, more counselors, more music programs, and an enriched curriculum.

In their new report on the privatization of public schools, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education present a profound endorsement of racially, ethnically and economically integrated public education: “The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes a variety of social-emotional and civic benefits for students.  At a time when there seems to be more emphasis on community divisions in our social and political settings, attending a public school can provide students with more opportunities to encourage relationships and friendships across group lines, thus eliminating false barriers of separation. And yet our nation has embarked on a troubling course that steers us toward school privatization, exclusivity and division.”

The contribution of school privatization to the racial segregation of children at school is the subject of Emmanuel Felton’s profound report for the Hechinger Report and NBC News. Felton describes the mostly white Lake Oconee Academy charter school in Greene County, Georgia: “At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene Country’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black…. In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located.  The differences between the charters and the whitest nearby public schools ranged from less than 1 percent to 78 percent.”

So, how did Lake Oconee Academy charter school make itself into a publicly funded segregation academy? “In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs… The case of Lake Oconee Academy doesn’t just illustrate how charter schools can segregate a community, it also underscores how charters can give well-connected individuals outsize influence on local schools. The charter was the creation of a real estate development company that is also the county’s largest employer, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Company officials and their allies sit on many of the county’s most important boards.”  While the school does set aside some places for children who don’t live in its economically exclusive attendance zone, at Lake Oconee, there are other disincentives for families without resources to invest in their children. The school requires uniforms purchased from Land’s End.  And it does not offer any kind of transportation to school; parents have to drive their children—a burden for parents whose work schedules make it difficult to provide school transportation.

Felton concludes: “The proliferation of racially identifiable white charters in some states but not others can be attributed in part to differences in state laws. In addition to allowing charters to draw their own attendance zones, Georgia doesn’t require charter schools to provide school bus transportation. The four states with the most racially identifiable white charters—Michigan, Arizona, Texas and California—also don’t require charters to offer transportation or to address the issue in their charter applications. And in North Carolina, which had six such charter schools in 2015, lawmakers have discussed allowing charters to give priority to children whose parents work at corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to the school.  In June, lawmakers passed a bill that lets four mostly white and affluent Charlotte suburbs open up charter schools that would give preference to their residents.”

School segregation is not by any means limited to charter schools. Nor is segregation limited to the South or to Republican all-Red states like Michigan and Arizona. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report identifying New York as the state with the most racially segregated schools in the United States: “New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”

The news has been filled this month with stories about racial segregation in New York’s exclusive specialized high schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio has now pledged to address the problem, but even in New York, doing something about racial segregation is a tough problem. The New York Times addressed the shortage of black and Latino students in New York City’s elite high schools in an editorial on Monday: “Opposition has been swift and fierce, much of it from alumni of the specialized schools, who have said the mayor’s plan would somehow lower the quality of education or ‘set kids up for failure.’ The very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school—an experience that for years has been unfairly denied so many black and Latino New Yorkers.”

Here are the stunning and deplorable statistics: “Black and Latino students make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1.1 million school children. Yet, of the 5,067 offers of admission to specialized schools this year, 51.7 percent went to Asian students and 26.5 percent to white students.  Latino and black students received 6.3 and 4.1 percent of the offers respectively. At Stuyvesant, the most sought-after of the schools, just 10 of the 902 students offered admission were black.”  The Times Editorial Board continues: “New York’s elementary and middle schools do not prepare children for the test, all but ensuring that students seek out extensive test preparation.  Many Asian and white students have done so for thousands of dollars apiece. Black and Latino students are likely to walk in with little or no test preparation.”

In 1971, the state legislature established in a state law known as Hecht-Calandra that students would be chosen for New York City’s specialized high schools based on scores on a single test, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Even now as Mayor de Blasio has proposed expanding the admissions criteria: “Perhaps the biggest challenge to the mayor’s full plan is political, since it will require overturning Hecht-Calandra. That would take forceful lobbying from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has so far signaled only lukewarm support.”

Mayor de Blasio has suggested a plan clearly based on academic merit. It is hard to believe his idea would be controversial: “Mayor de Blasio has vowed to replace the test with a system, to be phased in over three years, that would eventually admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of grades and performance on state exams. City officials say that if the plan is implemented, the specialized high schools would be about 45 percent black and Latino.”

Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s biracial son and a graduate of one of New York’s specialized high schools, Brooklyn Tech, just had an opinion piece published in the New York Daily News on the subject of racial segregation in New York’s elite high schools. Now a rising senior at Yale University, Dante de Blasio writes about his experience as a black student in a school where he was in the minority: “When I went to Tech, it was clear that people were missing. Fort Greene, the neighborhood that houses the school, is majority black and Latino, and I remember the constant discontinuity of walking through this neighborhood of black faces in order to enter a school where hardly anyone looked like me… Let me tell you what I appreciated most about Brooklyn Tech. The school takes people from all across the city—many of them from immigrant backgrounds and who will be the first in their families to go to college—and offers them a quality of education that many public schools can’t. But the way these schools choose students is offering them another education: a distorted lesson in who belongs in the upper reaches of education in this nation, and who does not.”

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Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.

St. Louis Public Schools: A Microcosm of the Destruction of Big City Public Education in America

Jeff Bryant’s history (published in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column) of public schooling in St. Louis—including desegregation and the recent decades of corporate school reform—is a fascinating reminder that recent decades of anti-public, pro-corporate school reform doctrine was a much broader phenomenon than Bloomberg’s small school/charter experiment in New York City or the work of Betsy and Dick DeVos and their friends in Detroit. Although the local details differ, Bryant’s tale of St. Louis is also the story of Cleveland and Milwaukee and Philadelphia. While today we have been indoctrinated by proponents of a test-driven, high stakes testing regime to regard education in our poorest, most segregated big cities as “failing,” these school districts historically modeled society’s commitment to provide children with the best kind of education. Then racism and white flight intensified racial and economic segregation. Ideologues prescribed experimentation with privatization as the cure, but it hasn’t worked.

Well into his report, Bryant describes the years when I first became aware of something awry in St. Louis.  Suddenly in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal, a corporate “turnaround” firm was hired to run the school district. William Roberti, formerly the CEO of Brooks Brothers, was made acting superintendent.  Alvarez & Marsal set about closing public schools and expanding charters. Here is Bryant: “None of these outsiders had any education expertise… Roberti and his associates were intent on outsourcing school services and attacking ‘cost centers’ in the district.  Roberti outsourced the district’s school lunch program, computer education program, and building maintenance to private firms. He cut funds to the district’s special education services, curriculum development staff, teacher professional development programs, school counselors and social workers, and the district’s school buildings oversight… By 2004, at the end of Roberti’s temporary tenure, St. Louis had closed 21 schools and laid off over 1,000 employees.” And “financial problems the turnover artists never truly solved became the primary excuse for the state to take over the district in 2007, install an appointed school board, and strip the district of its accreditation.”

Bryant begins his story in 1897 with the district’s employing architect William Ittner to design and oversee the construction of new schools. Each had “a broad green lawn across the front, an impressive brick facade, and high arching windows to light the interior…The open plan used E-, U-, or H-shaped floor layouts and flanks of windows to allow sunlight to fill common areas and classrooms.  The designs emphasized large, open classrooms where teachers had more flexibility to arrange learning activities.  Students moved through sunlit hallways from classrooms to libraries and specialty rooms for art and music… Ittner designed 50 schools in St. Louis—48 are still standing….”  Many are now abandoned and in ruins.

But, Bryant reports, race has been an issue in the city, and the fate of the public schools today was cemented after WWII, with rampant white flight to 80 suburbs in the 1950s—90 suburbs today.  Bryant cites Richard Rothstein’s work, drawing “a direct line from residential housing policies made by the federal government to the isolation of low-income black children in American cities, including St. Louis…. By segregating housing and education, St. Louis’s civic leadership doomed many of the district’s schools to chronic low academic performance, Rothstein argues. Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, he writes, often have fewer and less-experienced teachers, higher concentrations of students whose learning is often impeded by the stress of poverty….”

Like other midwestern cities, St. Louis also experienced economic decline: “St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to just nine in 2015.  While deregulation hollowed out St. Louis’s economy, Missouri state lawmakers attacked the city’s school funding… A recent analysis by EdBuild found that St. Louis schools have a cost-adjusted revenue per student that is 9 percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state.”

Then came the school reformers: “While racism, economic upheaval, and underfunding took their toll, the next wave to hit St. Louis schools was arguably even more destructive.” Missouri charter school legislation passed in 1998; the first St. Louis charter opened in 2000; in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal brought their corporate belt-tightening and school closures; charter growth boomed between 2008-2013;  and today 30 percent of St. Louis students attend publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.  As in many places, expansion of charters has hurt the public schools, in the case of St. Louis, because of a provision of Missouri school finance law: “When the state allots money to charters…. the state reduces the host district’s aid by the same amount, so a district like St. Louis, which funds its schools mostly by local property taxes, loses that revenue as well as their state aid.”

The St. Louis Public Schools have recently made positive accomplishments despite these enormous challenges. In 2014, after the district raised its graduation rate to 72 percent, posted 95 percent attendance, raised test scores, and  got its finances in order with a surplus, the St. Louis Public Schools regained accreditation.  In 2012 St. Louis schools added Pre-K for all and staffed the program with certified early-childhood educators.  There is now some talk of restoring an elected school board.

Bryant concludes: “Today’s education theorists may regard Ittner’s vision of schools as special places for learning and as icons of community identity and pride as a relic. But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child,  that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity, did not fail us.  We failed it.”

Please read Jeff Bryant’s excellent history of public education in St. Louis.  As a depiction of the forces that have, during our lifetimes, undermined the vision for public education across America’s big cities, Bryant’s report is much more than a local story.

Rich Neighborhoods Seceding to Form Their Own Segregated Enclaves in New Trend

Racial segregation is a reality across the South and across America’s big cities.  In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch quotes the data:  “80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students attend majority-nonwhite schools. Forty-three percent of Latinos and 38 percent of black students attend intensely segregated schools, where fewer than 20 percent of students are white…  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.” (p. 292)

Segregation by income has also grown enormously since 1970.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

While the extent of segregation is deplorable 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is well documented and not surprising.  Last week, however, Businessweek reported what it says may be becoming a new trend that will accelerate resegregation across school districts in the South that have been released from desegregation court orders.  According to Businessweek, “About half of the almost 500 districts under desegregation orders in 1990 were released by 2009…”  These districts have been awarded what is known as unitary status, by which the court releases them from oversight because they are said to have done all they were able to do to integrate their schools.

In several metropolitan areas, wealthy neighborhoods of large school districts are now simply seceding—pulling out to form their own small, exclusive, white school districts.  “In Alabama, which makes it relatively easy to create districts, two Birmingham suburbs have left the countywide system in the past two years.  After the majority-black Memphis schools merged last year with the majority-white county district, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature lifted a decades-old ban on creating new systems, and six suburbs seceded, approving sales tax increases to pay for their schools.  Parent groups in Atlanta and Dallas are considering similar proposals.”

Businessweek‘s story last week is about parents in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana.  Parents supporting an effort called “Local Schools for Local Children,” including parents whose children have been attending private, segregated academies, want to take their tax dollars and pull out of the “42,000-student school district they share with mostly black neighborhoods nearby, where many families live in poverty.”  Whether the parents in Baton Rouge will be able to form their own exclusive school district remains in question because the Louisiana general assembly has not yet approved the enabling legislation.  Persistent parents are working to form a separate town in order to help their chances.

“‘It’s going to devastate us,’ says Tania Nyman, who has two elementary-age children in Baton Rouge magnet schools. ‘They’re not only going to take the richer white kids out of the district, they are going to take their money out of it.'”  According to a research report from a local university, per-pupil spending in Baton Rouge would drop from $9,635 to $8,870.  According to the Businessweek reporter, this would be “a painful cut in a district where 82 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school meals.  In the breakaway district, spending would rise to $11,686 per student.”

Public Schools: The Victims, Not the Cause, of Massive Inequality

A couple of years ago Paul Reville, then Massachusetts Education Secretary declared: “Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students.  In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well…”

This is the idea, widely held, that it is all the teachers’ fault.  Extending this idea tells us that our problem is tenure or bad colleges of education training teachers badly.

Such ideas, foolish as they may sound to those of us who know something about inequality of educational opportunity, seem appealing because the problem can be fixed by merely firing our way into a better future.

We struggle to grasp and connect the web of issues that converge to drive inequality for children.  And if we can grasp the scope of the problem, it seems overwhelming.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz helps us this morning in The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy.  Stiglitz has a wonderful way of translating the real life implications of economic policy.  And he understands quality public schools as part of the common good that strong economies are supposed to support.

Stiglitz grew up in Gary, Indiana, and this morning he writes about the role of manufacturing in mid-western cities:  “Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure.  From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.”  He continues: “Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons.”

The rest of this morning’s article connects the dots, summarized as, “underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.”

The rest of the article explains thoroughly how these factors intersect and what we must start to change.  “Detroit’s bankruptcy,” Stiglitz writes, “is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds.”

One of those things we’ll have to do is figure out a way to support and improve the public schools in places like Detroit instead of closing and privatizing  the schools that struggle and punishing the teachers and children based on high-stakes tests.  The children and their teachers are the victims, not the cause, of the structural inequality Stiglitz describes this morning.